Sex & Love

Jewish Body Part 2: The Sex

Whatever we say about women and men being equal now and tomorrow – I have three daughters who I want to see beat the world – throughout the whole human past, including the Jewish past, men and women have had … Read More

By / February 24, 2009

Whatever we say about women and men being equal now and tomorrow – I have three daughters who I want to see beat the world – throughout the whole human past, including the Jewish past, men and women have had different rules, different roles, different thoughts, and different lives.

Your mother told you men only want one thing, and you may have rolled your eyes, but she had a piece of the truth. Biology and common sense both tell us sex is something women have and men want. We can try as hard as we want to talk our way around this, but we can’t make it any less true–for the Jews or any other people.

In Portnoy’s Complaint, the insanely randy main character famously tells his analyst, "LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!" He’s feeling down because he couldn’t get it up while trying to rape an Israeli soldier-girl who unmanned him.

But Portnoy’s droopiness aside, nobody ever took the id – Freud’s word for our sexual instincts – out of Yid. The first commandment is "Be fruitful and multiply," and so far there’s just one way to do that. Like all men, the great rabbis were scared of their own sexual drive and the power that gave women. But they didn’t lose their sense of humor.

In one Talmud story, the Rabbi Amram has some women travelers staying in one of his rooms, only reachable by a ladder that takes ten men to move it. The rabbi catches a glimpse of a woman and moves the ladder back himself with superhuman lust. But as he’s climbing up to them, his judgment takes over: "Fire at Rabbi Amram’s," he yells, and his colleagues rush over and save him–and the women–from himself.

In another story, two top sages are walking behind a woman.The senior one says they have to get out in front of her or they’ll be tempted.The other reminds him that he once said "fit men" can be around women. Answer: "I didn’t mean fit men like you and me!" Believe it or not, the Talmud also brags about the size of certain rabbis’ organs.

Even more explicit are descriptions of their beauty – the rabbis, not the organs. And beauty is biblical too. Abraham lies about Sarah being his sister when they travel, so he won’t be killed by strangers lusting after her. Jacob gets Leah first but wants Rachel, the pretty one. David watches Bathsheba bathing. Result: adultery and quasi-murder, but also the birth of Solomon and his glorious reign.

So the Jews always kept the id in Yid. Unlike the Christians who surrounded and oppressed them, Jews never considered celibacy a virtue. Sure, sex was dangerous. You had to control it. You had it with another person, of the opposite sex, who you were married to. You had to have it just so often depending on your occupation (scholars more than laborers), and the pace would be hard for some modern couples. Doing it on Shabbat was a mitzvah, doing it during menstruation a no-no. But not do it at all? You have to be kidding.

The menstrual restriction mattered a lot. For the first twelve days of the month, a woman couldn’t have sex or even touch a man, and thi — along with men’s pathetic distractibility – meant women were kept out of the public sphere, and even more so, the religious sphere. This shaped Jewish women’s destiny.

But even the very Orthodox say that when the wife comes back from the mikvah, the ritual bath, after her twelve "unclean" days, and lets hubby know she’s ready, it’s like a monthly honeymoon. Too much availability, they say, makes marriage stale, while their laws and rituals perk things right up again.

Men do have to go to the mikvah at times, when they are unclean because of, say, a wet dream. According to folklore, this means the man was seduced in his sleep by Lilith – Eve’s uppity, hyper, oversexed predecessor – and may now be the father of imps and demons.

But the legitimate sex appeal of Jewish women was perfectly kosher, and of course it affected non-Jews too. In the Purim story, the Jews of Persia are saved because a king is overcome by Jewish beauty, and when we dress up our little girls like Esther year after year, it tells them a lot about what we think.

In English literature too, despite its anti-Semitism, Jewish beauty brings Gentiles to their knees. Shylock may have his "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, but we know he’s a monster and a caricature of Jewish male ugliness. Yet his daughter Jessica is a beauty sought and won by Lorenzo, a Christian, and she ends up trashing the faith of her fathers. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe has another famous father-daughter pair. Isaac the greedy moneylender is another cartoon, but his lovely daughter Rebecca wins the hearts of not one but two Christian knights. Unlike Jessica, though, she’s a true daughter of Israel, and no one can blame her for being beautiful.

So for Jews sex is normal and good, however potentially dangerous, and Jewish beauty is a key thread in the weave of the tradition. But of course, just as non-Jews get gaga over Jewish women, Jewish men fall under others’ spells. More on that tomorrow.

For an exchange between Konner and a distinguished Orthodox rabbi on women’s roles, with comments by smart Jewish women, click here.

Konner is the author of "The Jewish Body" and is guest-blogging on Jewcy all week.